The Cozy Inn
Nearly 100 Years in Business!
Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen
"You have to treat your patrons like your friends and your family, to consider them first." ~ Tom Fong
Amanda and Tom Fong - Photo by Teresa Nguyen
A Cozy Inn-terview with Co-Owner, Tom Fong
Prior to marrying my father, my mother, Marie, was a trained pastry chef in Hong Kong. My parents divorced when I was young. While living in Milwaukee, we basically grew up with a single mom. She always had a passion for baking and cooking.
As a single mother, she worked in a lot of prestigious restaurants, like the Golden Palace, in Milwaukee. In the Chinese restaurant culture, there were few female head chefs around that time, if any. But Marie became the first Chinese, female head chef at the well-known Charlie Toy’s Shanghai Chinese Restaurant in Milwaukee.
As a child, I grew up in restaurants. I used to sit in these restaurants while my mother cooked.
"Cozy Inn Opens - Cozy Inn, Janesville's only chop suey restaurant opened for business at its new location at 214 West Milwaukee Street on the second floor of the new Connors building Wednesday…Regular dinners are served in addition to chop suey and Chinese dishes of all kinds." ~ 1922 article in the Janesville Daily Gazette
So, at an early age, I was familiar with the kitchens. We didn’t have any duties in our childhood, my brother and I were just observing.
Coming to Janesville
My mother, Marie, was a very popular chef in the Milwaukee area, but wanted an opportunity to open her own restaurant. She had heard that the Cozy Inn was up for sale in Janesville, so she bought the restaurant.
It had been a Chinese restaurant since 1922. Originally, it was located behind what used to be the Country Kitchen, in a different building, but then they moved into this building soon after. The current building had been a pool hall at one time and a place where they would keg alcohol.
The owners of the Cozy Inn were two Chinese brothers. It stayed popular through the 1930s and 40s, then the grandson of the original owner eventually took over. This grandson, David, sold it to his older brother. And he sold it to my mom in 1974.
Our family has owned the place ever since, it’s been 46 years now. In 2022, the Cozy Inn restaurant will celebrate 100 years!
Very Little Diversity
There was no diversity in Janesville at that time. There may have been about five Asian families, one Hispanic family and one Black family.
I attended Parker High School and then went to community college at U-Rock for a couple of years. But school just wasn’t for me. I wanted to go right into the experience of the business.
Also, I needed to help my parents out at that time, since their English wasn’t very good. They had arrived from Hong Kong as immigrants to America.
My mom had been born in China, but ended up in Hong Kong and her sister went to Singapore. They were separated during the occupation by Japan. Many years later, they were able to reunite.
Toy's Chinese Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI
Fascinating Family Story
My father’s story is a very interesting one. He was an older dad and, later in life I found out that he was actually a survivor of the Titanic, pulled out of the freezing water floating on a piece of wood! (Tom is the only surviving child, a direct descendant, of a Titanic survivor.)
A fascinating, new documentary film, called The Six, was based on my father and five other Chinese passengers aboard the ship.
These passengers’ stories were never told. The filmmakers learned how they faced terrible discrimination after their rescue and show how the film crew researched the identities of these six men.
Although everything was wrapped up in production, the original release date had to be postponed, due to the pandemic and theaters closing. It will be released next spring, likely in April of 2021.
To watch the documentary trailer of The Six, click here:
In the fall of 2019, The Janesville Gazette published an article on this story. To read the Gazette article, click here:
In my youth I didn’t get to see him that often. Even though my parents were divorced, my dad helped my mom buy the restaurant in Janesville. I believe he did that because he knew that by helping my mom, he was also helping me and my brother.
The Restaurant Business
My mom, her husband (my stepdad), my brother, John, and I worked the restaurant. We hired some others, but my brother and I, as teenagers, basically took over running the place.
The original 1922 menu
When we entered the business, there wasn’t much selection on the menu. So, we expanded the food choices with more Chinese dishes. A lot of local folks didn’t even know these dishes existed, like sweet & sour and such.
There wasn’t much in the way of décor at the restaurant then. There was the telephone booth, which had been there since 1922. It’s an interesting part of the restaurant. Back then, phone numbers only had 4-digit numbers! The booth had a phone for customers to use. People like to take photos of themselves in the booth and others make calls on their cell phones in there because it’s pretty sound proof.
The eating booths were original, there since 1922, although we have since reupholstered them. Customers really love sitting in the booths. They used to have curtains across the openings.
My mom also decorated the place with a lot of Chinese art pieces over the years. Some of it came from Taiwan, as well. Amanda’s brother also brought a few items over from his visits to China.
Original menu from 1922, featuring a lot of American foods - note those prices!
Original telephone booth - still there!
There used to be another addition, a dining room, next door on the same floor to the west of the current restaurant. The door that led to it was eventually sealed off. That part of the building got sold and the Quaernas now own that side. At one point, I found a lot of old photos and cool things stored back there.
In my mid-twenties, I went off to start my own businesses down south. I went to New Orleans and built a 5-star restaurant there. Then I sold that and moved to Florida and started another restaurant.
I took a trip to China. While there, someone introduced me to Amanda. She is originally from China. The sparks flew and next thing you know, we were married! She then immigrated to America. We’ve been married for 33 years now.
We had our first child, our son, in Florida. After he was born, I decided to sell that restaurant and move back to Janesville. I didn’t like the idea of raising my child down in Miami, Florida. I also missed my mom and she really wanted to see her grandchild. She was getting up there in age. So, we moved back here around 1991.
I worked back at the Janesville restaurant for a while, but then took another job at General Motors. I worked there the longest, but all the while I still helped at the restaurant. I retired from GM right at the very end, as they were shutting down in 2008.
I had considered transferring to another GM, but with the restaurant business, I didn’t want to leave. I own several properties, some farms in the area, which I lease out to farmers. Plus, I owned some property in Madison.
My wife, Amanda, had been taking care of the business because my mom retired. Amanda also had some family members working in the restaurant, so I stayed out of it for a while and just took care of my properties.
Amanda is quite the business woman. She’s really good at what she does and has been in the business and running things for 32 years. You have to keep your focus on every aspect of that business, you can’t take your eye off the ball.
If you asked me who my role model is or who inspires me, I’d tell you my wife inspires me. It’s inspiring to watch her…she’s just so full of energy and she loves what she does.
“I enjoy my job!” ~ Amanda Fong
The Cozy Inn - Photo by Teresa Nguyen
The biggest challenge is always finding the right employees. A lot of people in the restaurant business have that trouble, finding quality, outgoing people with good ‘people skills.’ That’s what keeps your business alive. They have to like what they’re doing. And you need the right chefs. For us, for now, the cooking is done by my brother-in-law and by me.
Sometimes we have our kids help. Our son is 31 and our daughter is 14. There’s a bit of an age gap. It’s not like they’re going to do this as a career, but it teaches them a good work ethic.
In 2008, with the big flood and the closing of GM, we were a little worried about the business. Thankfully, we didn’t suffer from the flood. But I’ve seen a lot of changes; you go through ups and downs. We figured we would manage somehow.
2018 some water pipes burst one morning due to the severe cold. But, thankfully, the severity of damage was very minimal. We had the situation repaired even before we opened.
We had a little slow down during the time the Milwaukee Street bridge was out, but that eased up. You just have to fight and work for it.
Photos posted by customers
The 2020 Pandemic
The pandemic was something we did see coming. We have some friends in Shanghai and were in touch with them. Your brain tells you that if it’s there, it could reach here. When March came around, the health department issued a restaurant capacity limit. We didn’t want to take any risks, so we were one of the first to shut down. I posted a notice on fb that we were going to be closed.
Well, during our last two days, prior to that closing, it was crazy! People were hording our food like people horded toilet paper! I’ve never seen anything like it. They were buying 40 egg rolls at a time; we ran out of supplies! My mom, who is in her late eighties, had to come up to help. We had all hands-on deck and couldn’t keep up!
We did about two weeks of business rolled into one night! It was scary. My mom even said that in all her years, she’d never seen anything like it!
Tom and his mother, Marie
That’s how supportive this community has been. After that, we shut down and didn’t reopen until June 11th. I was worried it would get crazy again, and it sort of did!
We’re still only doing carryout meals. People keep calling to see if the dining room is open. We feel that nothing about this Coronavirus pandemic has changed, so we don’t want to take chances.
And it’s only getting worse because people are letting their guard down. I was reluctant even to reopen, but at least we’re doing carryout for the time being.
I have an elderly mother, she’s 88 now, and I really don’t want anything to happen to her. We hope the people of our community can understand that.
When you own an iconic restaurant like this, it’s pretty special. We’ve been at this location almost 100 years.
A Chinese decoration that reads, "Good luck in the restaurant business."
We’re one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the states still operating in the same location!
What’s rewarding is that so many of the patrons are like family. I’ve already seen five generations from one family coming to this restaurant! When we started working there in 1974, an older gentleman used to bring in his grandkids. Now THEY have children and they’re coming up. It’s amazing.
The Cozy Inn in the 1970s
We get a lot of support. Like when the Milwaukee Street bridge was out, someone came up to the restaurant and asked how business was going. It was a little slow. So, this customer went and posted something on Facebook. It went viral and had around 1500 shares!
Next thing we knew, things exploded and we had so many people showing up! Then the Gazette showed up and wrote a story about it and the customers continued to flow in.
I’d rather not have it so crazy busy. It’s better for the cooks to be able to go for quality rather than quantity.
Muriel Humphrey, wife of 38th Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, visited The Cozy Inn in the 1960s
Since it started, we’ve always won the Readers' Choice Awards, not even missing a year! There have been other Asian restaurants in town, but we’ve stayed on top. We do get a lot of support from the community.
Years ago, we were known as the “Chop House”, as a nickname, but now there’s the Wissota Chophouse, so that could be confusing.
(top middle) The first Readers' Choice Award was given in 1997
Amanda holding their 2020 Award
Secrets to Longevity in the Business
Some restaurants, when they do their business, they look at it like “I’m serving food”, and that’s it. You have to treat your patrons like your friends and your family, to consider them first.
When Amanda talks to customers, she gets to know them. The patrons are sometimes impressed that she knows their orders, every little nuance! She remembers the patrons, knows them like she knows her kids and treats them with respect.
The Favorite Dishes
I noticed that the older generation enjoys the chop suey and chow mein, but the younger generation enjoys the hot and spicy dishes. I can tell which generation it is, when I’m back in the kitchen, just from the order.
As far as my favorite foods go…when you see the same dishes for 45 years, they’re not your favorites (laughs).
Recently, we’ve done some traveling, and my favorite food would be the food of Singapore and southeast Asia, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
Singaporean satay is just out of this world.
Family, Hobbies and Travel
Our son and his wife live in Madison. He works in IT Support. His wife is a nurse at UW Hospital. No grandchildren yet, but they do have a puppy. We also got a dog last year.
That’s my daily routine, walking my dog in the morning. And for now, I enjoy staying home with my family, watching my daughter play piano. She’s a talented musician, it’s crazy to watch her play.
Tom and Amanda (on right) and their family
She has performed for the Rotary Gardens Home Garden Tour and in the Young Performers events at The Woman’s Club. She’s only 14, but has been playing since she was just a child.
I used to do more hunting and fishing. These days, as I get older, I’m more into kayaking and hiking with my wife.
We do like to travel, too. My daughter is in her teens and I want her to see more of the world and the diversity of the world. You can learn more from these experiences than from just reading about it. We were supposed to travel this year to the UK, Ireland, France and Italy, but because of COVID-19, we had to cancel the trip.